Craig Alexander’s pass on Chris Lieto at the 2009 Ironman World Championships produced one of the great triathlon photos. It said it all. While Alexander was picking people off on the run, Lieto was wearing his heart on his sleeve giving it everything he had. In 2009, he only just came up short. Can he do it in 2010? Susan Grant chatted to one of the most popular triathletes in the world about Kona, running and that score to settle.
You were inspired to compete in triathlon after reading an article in Outside magazine about Mark Allen. He went on to become your first triathlon coach. What did you learn from him?
I was inspired to do triathlon originally after watching the Ironman on television. Also, Wendy Ingraham lived in my area and so I met her at school and watched her do the Ironman on television. During this same period of time I saw the magazine article with Mark, and there was a sample 16-week plan on training for your first triathlon, so I followed that plan. That’s how I got started. After that, Wendy helped me in my training and Mark came along and coached me for a year after that. I learned a lot from him. Professional athletes who become coaches bring their own experiences as athletes to the table, including their own trials and errors. But everyone is different, so you have to figure out what works best for you, especially as you get older.
During the last decade you’ve had three top-10 finishes at the Hawaii Ironman. You’ve said in the past that one of your goals as a pro was to become one of the top Americans in the sport. With your top-American finish in 2009, do you feel like you have achieved your goal?
There’s definitely more left out there for me to do. One of the goals I set for myself when I got involved in the sport in 1999 was to be in the top one percentage in the world as far as ranking. I’ve accomplished that, as well as winning several other races that I set out to win. The last thing on my list is really to win Kona. I’ve come closer every year, so it’s still out there for me to finish first. This year I will be out there to win.
How does your goal of winning Kona affect the rest of your 2010 season?
For the last couple years, my focus has really been winning Ironman Hawaii above all else. Every race I go to I have the goal in mind that I want to win, but ultimately my goal for the whole year is winning Hawaii. There are sacrifices I make throughout the year in terms of the races I choose to do and in my training so that I can be as fit as possible come October.
That said, even if I’m not as fit because of where I am in my yearly training plan, no matter what race I line up for, I shoot for winning and for giving my all and racing all out and challenging myself.
It’s always exciting to see what I have in me at any given moment in a race. It’s also beneficial to race closely against somebody else because it teaches you about yourself both physically and emotionally. I will take all the things I learn in every race that I do this year and try to adapt them to how I approach my race in Kona.
You are currently coached by Matt Dixon, founder of Purple Patch Fitness based in the San Francisco Bay area. Dixon is a proponent of rest and recovery rather than logging huge miles all the time. You’ve always been vocal about the importance of rest, but even you have admitted that it’s easier for someone to make time for recovery when training is their only full-time job. What advice do you have for age-group athletes on recovery?
To be honest, 99 percent of age-groupers train too much. I’ve learned a lot more of that from Matt Dixon. In the past, some coaches really overloaded me, and they just had a philosophy that training that hard is what you have to do, although it is more of a philosophy people believed 15 years ago.
Matt incorporates a lot of rest and recovery into my training program and it works really well for me, especially as I get older. I believe you really need to take at least one day off weekly. It’s hard to do mentally sometimes, but people would be amazed at the relatively small amount of training you can do and still have an incredible race.
You spent six weeks leading up to Kona in 2009 training at altitude—roughly 8,000 feet—in Mammoth with marathoners Ryan Hall and Josh Cox, among others. What was the most profound change in your running during your time there, and how did it help you in Kona?
The time I spent up there was a great time, and being up that high works really well for me. It doesn’t always work well for people, so I was glad I enjoyed it and it helped me. I will be going back this year, although I will have to monitor when and how long I’m up there because what works once may not work the next time.
It was a chance to focus on my training for Hawaii, although usually I do training camps on Maui before the Ironman. This past year, I wanted to stay closer to home. It was more about a destination to get clarity and focus and to find balance in my training and myself.
Also, the surroundings were so beautiful and the people were so great to run with and learn from. Running with my friends Ryan Hall and Josh Cox and getting to know Deena Kastor and her husband and Meb [Keflezighi] was really a great experience.
It was good to be able to run with people at a high level.They are elite athletes at the top of their sport and we have mutual respect for each other and what it takes to be an athlete.
But there wasn’t any of that cloudiness of the sport of triathlon crowding my mind up there.
I’ve never really spent time at training camps in the traditional triathlon environment, for instance, going up to Boulder or wherever else other triathletes go. I’d rather train either with elite athletes I can learn from or just by myself. It was a time for me to challenge myself. There were times when I was more nervous about a track session with Ryan Hall and Josh Cox and all the Mammoth track team than lining up for a race. The running was great, I got a lot of good quality runs in while staying injury free, and it was just a great time overall.
In 1998 a friend accidentally ran over your foot, breaking it in more than 50 places. You were told you would never run again. Did you place a call after your Kona finish to the doctor who gave you your diagnosis and rub it in?
It’s funny you mentioned that. I did a talk with a triathlon club at a fitness club in my area and at the end of my talk it turns out the doctor who had worked on me after my injury was in the audience. He came up and talked to me after I finished my presentation and congratulated me. He was really impressed, and we’ve actually talked a few times since.
Doctors always give you the worst-case scenario with injuries like that based on the data that they have available to them. However, I am still dealing with the injury even today. I notice it in how my foot reacts to my run training, the soreness and the inflexibility in my ankle. I have some scar tissue in my foot even still. You just deal with it.
Thinking back to when you were healing from that injury, do you think it made you an even more driven athlete than you would have been otherwise?
In the beginning for sure it did. That first year, it was very much a driving force for me to rehab and get healed up. I was doing more on a rehab basis than they would have liked because I was so motivated. I would show up at the rehab place and they would tell me to warm up on the bike and I would have to explain to them that I just got done riding for two hours on the trainer. They basically kicked me out of physical therapy because I was doing enough on my own.
I was very proactive. As soon as I could get out of bed I did, as soon as I could ride a bike I did. Even with the cast on I would do activity. I pushed for a cast that would allow me to get in the water and I did a lot of aqua jogging. I never gave it time to rest and that was the key to my recovery.
A lot of times when people have surgery or injury issues they sit and let the recovery happen without being active, and that is when the scar tissue builds up. I really kept my foot and ankle moving and although I have some scar tissue it is so much less than I would have had otherwise.
You are one of the strongest cyclists in the sport, if not the strongest. Chris McCormack said that he thought you would be able to out-split Lance Armstrong if you had the chance. Do you think that you could?
I have no idea! I doubt it. Lance is a phenomenal athlete and he has the ability to excel at anything he puts his mind to. He is a mentor for me—someone I look up to. If he races in Kona this year or whenever and I’m out there racing too, I’ll do my best to keep up with him and hopefully I won’t let him go anywhere. I have no doubt that in the end he would probably smoke me though.
Prior to the 2009 Ironman World Championship, it was rumored that you were considering retiring from the sport. Was this true, and if so why?
I’ve gone through different stages in regards to retirement. In 2004, I thought about retiring and then I was able to have a good race at Ironman Canada and at that time I was thinking that it might be my last race. It goes to show how important your mindset is going into a race. At Ironman Canada I had no pressure on me; I just went out there and tried to have the best race I could have. I also held strongly to the belief that I had it in me to win the race, and so believing that I was able to win.
I learned from that experience that you always have to have that type of mindset where you are positive and you have big goals, but at the same time you don’t put pressure on yourself in an unhealthy way. You have to show up to your events, or whatever else you have to do in your life, with a relaxed, confident attitude, and that is how I really have approached the rest of my career since then.
Did I think about retiring last year? Well, no, but I’m always thinking about my exit and how I will handle that. I will be turning 38 this year so I’m not a young pup anymore, but every year I feel like I’m still getting better. Last year at Kona my fitness was really there and I think that this year it will be even more. I will continue to race as long as I feel like my fitness is improving or until something else comes along that really inspires me to put everything into it.